The World According To Sesame Street

The World According To Sesame Street

The World According To Sesame Street (USA, 2005, Director: LInda Goldstein Knowlton and Linda Hawkins, 105 minutes): Sesame Street has proved to be a very successful American export, now being seen in more than 120 countries. This film looks at the very unique process of establishing co-productions with local educators, producers and puppeteers, focussing on two challenging locations: Kosovo and Bangladesh.

By far the most time is spent on the Bangladeshi production, and the real star of the film is Sesame Workshop producer Nadia Zylstra, who began her job three weeks before filming began. We follow this very excitable South African woman as she begins the process of defining what the program will look like in Bangladesh. The film shows us the nuts and bolts of how the production comes together, and some of the challenges involved when dealing with local opposition and delays.

I enjoyed the film and found it very inspiring, but I think it missed a chance to dig a bit deeper into the issue of what some audience members called “cultural imperialism.” Though they’re very careful to “partner” with local people, the Sesame Street organization is still American and fuelled by American values and definitions of success. Some of the questions surrounding the “export” of an American model would have been very interesting to explore.

Reading his review after I wrote mine, I discovered that The Toronto Star’s Peter Howell agrees with me.

8/10(8/10)

NOW Toronto: NNNN (out of 5) (review)
EYE Weekly: *** (out of 5) (review)

His Big White Self

His Big White Self

HIs Big White Self (UK, 2006, Director: Nick Broomfield, 94 minutes): I’m a bit sheepish to admit that this is the first Nick Broomfield documentary that I’ve seen. From what I’ve heard, Broomfield was one of the first documentary filmmakers to insert himself into the narrative, and like Michael Moore, he can sometimes be more of a distraction than necessary.

This film is a companion piece to his 1991 film The Leader, His Driver, and the Driver’s Wife, which was a portrait of South African white supremacist leader Eugene Terreblanche. It would be a good idea to see that film first, I think, since this film refers to many events from the earlier film. In the 1990s, after the collapse of apartheid, Terreblanche’s group, the Afrikaner Resistance Movement (the Afrikaans acronym is AWB), was responsible for a rash of bombings that killed several people. His followers also violently disrupted gatherings of the ANC and other political opponents, and eventually, Terreblanche faced prison time for some of these crimes (as well as for some more personal misdeeds, like assault and attempted murder). Ridiculously, he serves only three years in prison, and Broomfield returns in 2004 just as he is being released, hoping to interview him again.

As a side note, in the first film, he never sits for a formal interview and Broomfield is reduced to chasing him around trying to provoke confrontations. In the same vein, this time Terreblanche refuses to meet the film crew for an interview (and in fact is prohibited from conducting political interviews as part of his parole), so Broomfield ends up disguising himself and pretending to be seeking an interview regarding a book of poetry Terreblanche has coming out. While these scenes are both funny and tense, it means the “interview” itself is pretty devoid of meaningful statements from The Leader.

Most of the interesting interviews are with the Driver of the first film, J.P. Meyer. An affable man now into his sixties, J.P. seems to really like Broomfield. But just when the audience is warming to him, he spouts some racist nonsense. Men like Meyer are pitiable even in their hatred. Desperate to hold onto their white privilege, and cloaking it in religious language, they’re now growing old as bitter men.

His Big White Self

Terreblanche is a fascinating character. A fiery orator who has based much of his movement and mannerisms on the German National Socialist (Nazi) Party, he constantly paints himself as a victim, and even though mellower now, is still convinced that his cause is right.

The film was hugely enjoyable but slighly flawed for two reasons. First, it really can’t be judged apart from the first film, which I haven’t seen (and which doesn’t appear to be widely available; it’s not even on DVD here in North America). Secondly, Broomfield’s discomfort is played mostly for laughs. The AWB at the zenith of its power had half a million members out of a white population of four million. Even with some of their cartoonish fascist posturing, they were a dangerous and violent group. Even though Broomfield speaks of receiving death threats after the first film, you don’t get the sense of danger in this one. Perhaps the AWB’s power really has disappeared. But when you see how little has changed in some parts of the countryside, you’re left feeling not so sure.

Visit the director’s web site

More on the film from England’s Channel 4

Transcript of a webchat conducted after the film aired on England’s Channel 4

8/10(8/10)

Darkon

Darkon

Darkon (USA, 2006, Director: Andrew Neel and Luke Meyer, 89 minutes): An immersive film about an immersive hobby. Darkon shines a light into the little-known world of Live Action Role Playing. Darkon is a fantasy world where groups of people gather every two weekends and fight real battles over imaginary land. Dressed in armor and armed with foam swords and shields, they do battle as an escape from their everyday lives. While there are plenty of laughs in the film, they’re never at the expense of the people who play the game, who turn out to be regular folks searching for a little excitement in their lives. People play to let off steam, to connect with the big themes of good and evil, honour and bravery, loyalty and betrayal. One of the recurring themes is that people in today’s world feel pretty powerless. They’re part of a society that tells them what to do and how to do it. In Darkon, many of these individuals feel in control of their lives for the very first time, and while it can seem a little bit sad, they’re having a blast.

Unavoidably, real life seeps into the game, and people’s characters are often informed by the things shaping them in their lives outside the game. When stay-at-home dad Skip Lipman (or Bannor of Laconia, as he’s known in the game) decides to lead other small nations in a revolt against the imperialistic nation of Mordom, it’s hard not to see him avenging his own exclusion from the family business by an older brother. And it comes as no real surprise to learn that Mordom‘s arrogant leader, Keldar (Kenyon Wells), is actually in management at his company.

Some of the best scenes in the film are the battle scenes. Though often looking like something out of Monty Python and the Holy Grail, they’re shot with mock epic seriousness, with the players reciting lines of awkard Arthurian prose. With the addition of a stirring score swelling behind them, the battles actually look pretty exciting.

Though I’ve never participated in a Live Action Role Playing game, I was an avid RPG (role-playing games) buff for several of my teenage years. I feel like I have some level of understanding for the subculture, and it provides a much-needed community for people who often feel outside the mainstream. The film preserves their dignity while still allowing us to laugh a little. After all, it’s a game. And it’s play. And play is supposed to be fun.

Visit the film’s web site

Visit the site of the Darkon Wargaming Club

10/10(10/10)

EYE Weekly: **** (out of 5) (review)

They Chose China

They Chose China

They Chose China (Canada, 2005, Director: Shui-Bo Wang, 52 minutes): An utterly compelling look at a forgotten group of US prisoners of war who refused to be repatriated to the United States after the Korean War. At the time, these 20-odd soldiers were branded “turncoats and traitors’ by red-baiting Senator Joseph McCarthy. In archival films, we see them making statements against Senator McCarthy and the current political climate in America, and although many of these archival films seem to have been created for propaganda reasons by the Chinese, the men claim that they were never mistreated in the prisoner-of-war camps. In fact, we see them organizing games and sports, even an “Inter-Camp Olympics”! Of course, having these men stay in China was a huge propoganda coup and they were quickly sent for “education” on the history of socialism and the Chinese Communist Party. Despite that, some stayed and even married in China. Gradually, most of the men returned to the United States, where they faced courts martial and scorn from the media and public.

It was a strange and almost forgotten episode in the Cold War and there is still a lot of ambiguity about what really motivated the men to stay. At the time, the American media speculated that they had been brainwashed (like in The Manchurian Candidate), but it didn’t appear that simple. It was just as clear that when the men returned home, the media used them in its own sort of propaganda war. One man’s interview with Mike Wallace was painful to watch, as Wallace continued to use the term “turncoat and traitor” over and over again. They were very different times.

The director’s voice over, in Chinese-accented English, was sometimes a little difficult to follow, but he did make clear that he considered these men heroes for trying to build bridges between enemies, and I’d tend to agree with that sentiment, even with so many questions left unanswered.

More information on the film from the National Film Board of Canada

8/10(8/10)

EYE Weekly: *** (out of 5) (review)

Raised To Be Heroes

Raised To Be Heroes

Raised To Be Heroes (Canada, 2005, Director: Jack Silberman, 53 minutes): A portrait of several “refuseniks,” Israeli soldiers who refuse to serve in the Occupied Territories, this film revealed a side of Israeli society that we rarely get to see on the nightly news. Not exactly pacifists, these men simply think that their role in the Israeli Defence Forces is to defend Israel, and that what they’re being asked to do has nothing to do with that role. In fact, many of them say they are being asked to commit war crimes against civilians on a regular basis, and so they have decided to face the consequences of disobeying their orders. For many of them, it involves long stretches in military prisons, but as one reserve officer said, he felt his 21 days in military prison did more to serve his country than all his years of obeying his superiors.

The film skilfully weaved bits of Israel’s history into the narrative so we got a bit of context for the men’s protests, and although it’s dangerous to simplify the political situation in the Middle East, for these men, their decision reflects their real conviction that Israel’s occupation of the West Bank and Gaza are morally wrong. Unfortunately, the director was ill and couldn’t attend the screening, so while there was a short Q&A, I think it could have been more interesting had the director been in attendance. The film did bring up important issues surrounding the (potential) conflicts between duty and morality.

More information on the film from the National Film Board of Canada

9/10(9/10)

EYE Weekly: *** (out of 5) (review)